Moral Parallels: Foshan China, Penn State

By James Fallows

In several items (first, second, and third) about last month's horrific episode in Foshan, China --  in which 18 people walked or biked past an injured 2-year-old lying in the road, until she was run over a second time and mortally wounded -- I mentioned that such "not my problem" behavior was a failing of human nature rather than of any one nation's culture. But the uproar over the episode inside China showed that it touched a nerve there. Specifically, it was a trigger for mounting concerns about the social and cultural effects of the me-first rush for riches these past few years.

It's worth recognizing how much the details of the grand jury report of (alleged) multi-victim, multi-year sexual predation in Penn State's football program make it a moral parallel of the toddler video. People who were not themselves "to blame" for a terrible situation also did not take responsibility for rescuing its victims.

The specifics of the moral choice for onlookers obviously differ: in China, it was a random assortment of people faced with an out-of-nowhere decision in a few seconds of real time. At Penn State, it was stewards of an organization convincing themselves to turn a blind eye over a period of years. But the results -- implicit decisions to distance oneself from responsibility for other people's suffering -- are similar. And while the Penn State case could be a trigger for larger concerns -- about bigtime sports culture, about the God-coach tradition of which Joe Paterno has been a main example, about unaccountable male-run hierarchies that seem to attract pederasts -- mainly we're reminded of human failings again. I tell myself that I would never have walked by an injured toddler -- or that I would never condone an episode like the one at Penn State quoted after the jump. But people who think of themselves as "good" did these things, which is mainly a sobering reminder of what we're all capable of. Mon semblable, mon frere.

From the grand jury's account of what happened at Penn State to "Victim 2" of a total of eight young boys who were molested:

On March 1, 2002, a Penn State graduate assistant ("graduate assistant") who was then 28
years old, entered the locker room at the Lasch Football Building on the University Park Campus on a Friday night before the beginning of Spring Break. The graduate assistant, who was familiar with Sandusky [the arrested coach], was going to put some newly purchased sneakers in his locker and get some recruiting tapes to watch. It was about 9:30 p.m.

As the graduate assistant entered the locker room doors, he was surprised to find the lights and showers on. He then heard slapping sounds. He believed the sounds to be those of sexual activity. As the graduate assistant put the sneakers in his locker, he looked into the shower. He saw a naked boy, Victim 2, whose age he estimated to be ten years old, with his hands up against the wall, being subjected to anal intercourse by a naked Sandusky. The graduate assistant was shocked but noticed that both Victim 2 and Sandusky saw him. The graduate assistant left immediately, distraught.

The graduate assistant, himself a strapping former Penn State varsity football player in his 20s, did not intervene to stop a then-58-year-old man whom he saw raping a little boy. He didn't go to the police. [Here is a very tough denunciation of "the graduate assistant."] Over the next nine years the culture as a whole didn't view stopping the rapist as an emergency. The Foshan tape tells us something about a particular culture and something about people in general; similarly with this episode.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/11/moral-parallels-foshan-china-penn-state/248110/